Some years ago, while attending an informal faculty meeting, I was called a “baby mama” by a co-worker who is a non-Black woman of color. I was embarrassed, angry, and wanted to immediately call her every name under the sun, but I didn’t. I bit my tongue and I wanted to hide.
Although now married, the memory has followed me to this day. At the time, my daughter was three months old. The dean of my college where I’m a professor asked that I bring my daughter to the meeting so that my co-workers could meet her. During the gathering, my co-worker (who I’ve never spoken to) asked another colleague of ours, “what’s up with baby mama over there?”
When word of her comment made its way back to me, I was livid and began to question how she knew I wasn’t yet married. Didn’t she see my engagement ring? I thought to myself. Would she have made the same assumption about one of our white colleagues? I wondered. After a few minutes of mental gymnastics, I realized I was giving this woman power she didn’t deserve.
Engaged, not engaged, single, divorced, it didn’t matter. Her biased comment wasn’t about me. It was about a history of racism and white supremacy that was much bigger than her. The experience was a bitter reminder that no matter how accomplished I become as an educator and scholar, the lies that we are told about Black women say that I am nothing more than a baby mama.
This kind of oppressive, dismissive, and sexist treatment toward Black women is nothing new. It only adds to the paradoxical nature of the invisibility and hypervisibility of Black women in America. The baby mama trope is merely another tired and played out, yet dangerously oppressive stereotype, that has become mainstream and is viewed as harmless, but in truth, fans the flames to centuries of oppression and abuse that Black women have endured.
If Fox News dared to refer to the former first lady Michelle Obama as a baby mama, I suppose I was low hanging fruit. In “Ms. Jackson,” Outkast’s Andre 3000 makes an apologetic appeal to his baby mama’s mama (Erykah Badu’s mother) for their failed relationship. Since then, the term and imagery have been featured in numerous other songs and comedic movies like Baby Mama.
By definition baby mama refers to “the biological mother of a man’s child, not married to the child’s father and usually not in a relationship with him” and is considered “often disparaging and offensive.” The term has evolved into a mainstream description of any unmarried woman who has had a child — allowing some to make an argument for its innocence.
Recontextualizing the term as a catch-all phrase seems harmless, but it’s a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing. The term originated as a derogatory reference used to oppress Black mothers during a time in which single Black mother homes were becoming more prevalent. The term also doesn’t provide a context for the anti-Black racist systems that exist in the U.S. which have slowly eroded the Black family unit. As long we live in a patriarchal society where marriage before having children is the social norm and children born outside of marriage are considered “bastards” or “illegitimate,” being called or thought of as a baby mama — at its core — will continue to be oppressive.
Black women are caught in a nasty paradox of being both invisible and hyper-visible simultaneously. Because race relations in the U.S. are typically discussed through the lens of Black males — the experience, presence, and the voice of Blackwomen is typically lost. While the murder of Black men by law enforcement is exhausting, angering, and absolutely heartbreaking we would be remiss to not observe that the countless murders and cases of abuse inflicted upon Black women often don’t receive nearly as much media coverage or are dismissed altogether.
Black women often fall to the backdrop in these conversations. Women who have fallen victim to the same racist forces that killed George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks: Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Yvette Smith, and Rekia Boyd to name a few. Likewise, in cases of gender, white women dominate such discussions. The media tends to publicize stories of missing white women or girls so much more than it does stories of missing Black women that there is a term for it: Missing White Woman Syndrome. Meanwhile, the bitter reality is that an estimated 64,000-75,000 Black women and girls are currently missing in the U.S. These numbers are startling when considering that Black in total only make up just under 14% of the U.S. population. Yet, 27.2% of missing women are Black. A 19-year-old black woman, Oluwatoyin Salau, was recently found dead after being missing for several days. If it weren’t for black twitter, I probably would be unaware of her tragic death.
The concurrent absence of media coverage about the epidemic of missing Black women renders them gone and seemingly forgotten. Black women also experience disparate health outcomes and multiple barriers when accessing quality healthcare. Black women in the U.S. experience higher rates of many preventable health conditions and are about three to four times more likely to die during pregnancy or from complications resulting from childbirth than any other racial group.
Ironically, the same racial and gender-based structures that render Black women invisible also contribute to them being hyper-visible. Adding to decades of oppressive and negative tropes about Black women, it perhaps might’ve been former President Ronald Regan who helped shape the image of Black women who receive government assistance as Cadillac-driving welfare queens making them the black, gold wearing, neck rolling, female bogeyman of conservative America. This image of the welfare recipient has remained racialized, despite empirical evidence that welfare recipients are overwhelmingly white.
Other negative tropes such as Yvette, a naïve (at best) love-struck, single Blackmother who can’t seem to shake her attraction for infantile, abusive, and apathetic men, in the film Baby Boy, further position Black women as hyper-visible and stereotyped. For every Hidden Figures, ten other films push the narrative of the Diary of a Mad Black Woman. It’s no wonder Black women like myself are constantly having to negotiate and renegotiate our identities both in personal and professional spaces.
Black women are often tokenized and have to do all kinds of tricks to mitigate the negative outcomes associated with discrimination. About 10.5% of conferred PhDs have been earned by Black women compared to 65.2% of white women and Black women only make up 3% of full-time professors compared to 27% of white women. I wanted to hide during my baby mama experience because I’m constantly one complaint away from being deemed “the angry Black woman.”
At that moment, while in a room of esteemed colleagues I was not viewed as a peer. My achievements were invisible and overridden by my femaleness and my Blackness, which also made my hyper-visible. But in the true tradition of Black women who have come before me and all other Black women who fight alongside me — we continue to persevere and remain cautious to not believe the lies that are told about Black women.